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Out of Control Policy Blog Archives: 10.14.12–10.20.12

Maglev is not Realistic for U.S.

A recently proposed U.S. freight Maglev system is more intriguing than previous systems but it is still completely unrealistic for the U.S. On October 15th the Transportation Research Forum reviewed the book “The Fight for Maglev: Making America the World Leader in 21st Century Transport” by James Jordan, James Powell and Gordon Danby. The 90-minute forum featured author Jordan, formerly energy research director for the U.S. Navy, discussing the book and reviewer Joseph Warren of the Arlington Transit Advisory Committee analyzing many of the book’s claims.

Mr. Jordan presented a new take on Maglev rail. According to Jordan, a private company could construct a 300 mph Maglev system with no government capital subsidies elevated above interstate highway medians. It would require only a $600 million government funded test facility. Jordan explained this minimum investment is all that is needed since Maglev is ten times cheaper than present day high-speed rail. He also claimed that using Maglev would cost only $0.05 cents per passenger mile for shipped goods compared to the current average truck costs of $0.10 cents per mile. Jordan achieves much of the savings for 2nd generation Maglev by using electric power to keep the system cold instead of creating an electric charge. 

Jordan’s proposal improves upon past Maglev plans. Previously, rail proponents have focused exclusively on the passenger market. Mr. Jordan rightly suggests there will never be sufficient passengers in most U.S. markets for high-speed ground transport to be a success. Currently, freight companies play a major role in most railroad activities. Creating a system that transports both freight and passengers makes good business sense. Mr. Powell also correctly contrasts the 2nd generation of Maglev technology, which co-authors Powell and Danby developed, to existing German and Japanese trains. This 2nd generation technology is cheaper, although still very expensive when compared to almost every other form of transportation. 

However, as in most high-speed ground transportation proposals either high-speed-rail or Maglev there are many major holes. First, if a private company can built this multi billion-dollar investment by itself, why is it waiting on the federal government to build a $600 million federal research center? Relative to the risk of a multi-billion dollar bet, $600 million is chump-change. Jordan counters that the government is preventing investment by providing conventional high-speed rail grants and loans. But with high-speed rail mostly stuck in neutral, there are almost certainly other factors at play. Perhaps it is the unrealistic projected ridership that Mr. Jordan predicts. As pointed out by reviewer Warren, Jordan predicts Maglev will capture 1/2 of passenger highway trips, 3/4 of the truck freight trips and 2/3 of the passenger aviation trips. This is simply not believable. Studies of HSR have shown that two-hundred-mile-per-hour trains will capture 10 percent of the auto travel market at most. Three-hundred-mile-per-hour Maglev trains will not divert substantially more travel. Automobile users value flexibility, not price nor speed. Maglev rail will not offer flexibility. Only two HSR routes have captured 2/3 of the aviation market and these corridors are unique. These two corridors located in France and Japan, are very dense routes travel through densely populated areas that were built before the ascendancy of the automobile. Further, since freight trucks hauled by Maglev will need to be driven from the Maglev terminal to thier final destination, short trips from the rail station to the retail or industrial destination will still be made by road. In fact Maglev will likely induce further short trips. 

There are other cost issues. Second generation Maglev vehicles has never before been constructed. Since the construction costs of new modes of transport almost always exceed thier estimates, these estimates should be used with caution. While China's Maglev system differs, the system suggests the uncertainty of cost estimates. And the Chinese systems true costs were minimized by creative government accounting. Maglev operating costs of $0.40 to $1.60 per mile provide a very large spread. More precise numbers based on different circumstances are needed. Further, instead of using a standard depreciation cost of $0.08 per mile, the author uses $0.30, which provides very different numbers. The authors also claim enormous cost savings as a result of using prefabricated materials; these cost savings seem very unlikely. 

Further, most high-speed-rail plans will build trains only along selected routes such as Chicago to St. Louis or Houston to Dallas. In order for this goods movement system to work, Maglev trains would need to be built along almost all interstate routes. The costs of Maglev in New York State are out of this world. In Wyoming they would be out of this galaxy.

Also problematic is the book’s obsession with environmental doom. While Maglev proponents may want the Sierra Club’s support, quality research should not be compromised to form a coalition. The book relies on peak oil theories from more than ten years ago. Hydraulic fracturing and the discovery of natural gas have pushed peak-oil back significantly. The Green revolution allows farms to generate significantly more food on many fewer acres. This eliminates the preserving farmland claim. The book seems to see two future possibilities: electric cars or Maglev. Hybrids, increased carpooling/bus ridership, and technological advances that reduce petroleum use are not considered. 

The author proposes some draconian policy changes. Since Maglev infrastructure would be built on or adjacent to Interstate highway medians, building new lanes on these highways would be very challenging. This includes not merely general-purpose lanes but managed lanes, truck lanes and bus lanes. This would not work in major cities where most highways do not have any open land to build tracks. The study does not fully consider any other options such as truck lanes, next-generation aviation’s ability to decrease air congestion or partially automated cars’ ability to decrease road congestion. Comparing costs with High-Speed Rail but not aviation or buses creates a strawman. An extensive conventional high-speed rail system is as equally unlikely as Maglev to be built in the U.S. It is akin to a city comparing its economic situation to Detroit and suggesting its economic losses are a good thing because they are smaller than Detroit’s.

Perhaps some major changes could make a better case for Maglev. But based on the numbers, the U.S. will not be an appropriate market for a comprehensive Maglev system for at least the next 50 years if ever.

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Reason-Rupe Poll: Public Pension and Government Spending Reforms Are Popular With California Voters

California's Proposition 30 and Proposition 32 are too close to call, according to a new Reason-Rupe statewide poll of likely voters that finds 7 percent have already cast their ballots. Reason-Rupe finds 50 percent of likely voters intend to vote “yes” and 46 percent say they’ll vote “no” on Proposition 30, Gov. Jerry Brown’s initiative to raise sales and income taxes. 

As Prop. 30’s support slips, there are emerging signs that even California’s Democratic-leaning electorate has grown weary of the state’s tax increases and may be ready for some Wisconsin-like reforms.

Adjusted for inflation, California’s government spending increased 42 percent per capita from 2000 to 2010, but the Reason-Rupe poll finds that just 14 percent of likely voters believe California’s government spending over that decade improved the quality of life in the state. In fact, 52 percent say the increase in state spending actually decreased the quality of life and 28 percent feel it made no impact. As a result, 56 percent of Californians favor reducing state government spending to what was spent per capita in 2000 and 25 percent oppose going back to 2000 spending levels.

The poll’s sample was made up of 44 percent Democrats, 26 percent Republicans and 24 percent independents. And yet, 62 percent support reducing the number of state government employees, while just 33 percent oppose cutting the state workforce.

Fifty-nine percent of those surveyed say government regulations often do more harm than good. And an even higher number, 65 percent of likely voters, believe the laws and regulations passed by the state legislature make it more likely that businesses will move their jobs to other states. Merely 24 percent think the legislature’s actions help create jobs in California.

The Reason-Rupe poll conducted live interviews with 696 adults in California, including 508 likely voters, via landlines (467) and cell phones (229) from October 11-15, 2012. The margin of error is plus or minus 3.8 percent, 5.1 percent for the likely voters sample. Princeton Survey Research Associates International executed the Reason-Rupe poll. 

Proposition 32 and Public Sector Worker Reforms

The poll finds 45 percent of likely voters support Proposition 32, while 48 percent oppose it. Prop. 32would prevent unions and corporations from using automatic paycheck deductions for political purposes.  

While voters may reject telling unions how they can collect or spend their money, they are eager for elected officials to rein in public sector worker costs. In fact, 77 percent say they favor requiring government workers to pay more for their own health care and retirement benefits; 20 percent oppose doing so. 

Likewise, 69 percent say future government workers—those who haven’t been promised defined-pensions—should be offered 401(k)-style retirement plans instead of the guaranteed pensions currently provided.

Nearly three quarters, 74 percent, of Californians say taxpayers should get to vote on retirement and benefit increases before they are given to government workers. Just 22 percent say taxpayers should not get to approve public sector benefit increases. The public wants its voice to be heard on the issue because 53 percent feel public sector unions have too much power over elected officials at the negotiating table and 42 percent say government unions hurt the state economy. Seventeen percent say public sector unions help the economy.

One specific example: 53 percent of Californians say the average state prison guard, who costs taxpayers over $100,000 a year in salary, overtime and benefits, is overpaid. Thirty-eight percent say guards are paid about the right amount and 6 percent say they are underpaid. 

Proposition 38, Higher Education Funding and Bias

Molly Munger’s Proposition 38, which would raise taxes to increase funding for schools, is supported by 42 percent of likely voters and opposed by 52 percent.

As California’s universities warn of even more tuition and fee increases if tax increases aren’t approved, the Reason-Rupe poll identifies several higher education reforms that enjoy vast public support.  Voters, by a 71-22 margin, favor requiring full-time faculty to teach one additional class each school year. Three out of four likely voters say state colleges and universities should offer full course offerings during the summer. Sixty-nine percent support consolidating academic programs and 64 percent favor transitioning low enrollment classes into online courses.  And 51 percent of voters believe universities could cut the number of administrators without harming the quality of education.

When asked if university professors offer material in a balanced or biased way, 53 percent say the presentation is biased and 24 percent say it is balanced. When asked to describe the bias, 68 percent believe it is a liberal bias, 8 percent feel it is a conservative bias and 20 percent say it is some other type of bias.

Municipal Bankruptcies and Reducing the Costs of Government

With multiple municipal governments filing for bankruptcy in California recently, voters were asked to identify changes they’d support their own local governments making.   Just 28 percent of voters support reductions to social services, police and fire departments, while 69 oppose such cuts. Conversely, 63 percent favor selling government-owned assets like golf courses, parking lots and convention centers.  Nearly the same amount, 60 percent, support outsourcing services such as trash collection, park management and road maintenance to the private sector. And 71 percent say they oppose raising local taxes in their area, while 25 percent support tax increases. 

Presidential and Senate Race

President Barack Obama leads Republican Mitt Romney 53 percent to 38 percent among likely voters. The Libertarian Party’s Gary Johnson gets 2 percent of support and 1 percent favors the Green Party’s Jill Stein.

Fifty-five percent of Californians approve of the job President Obama is doing and 40 percent disapprove. Similarly, 59 percent of likely voters view the president favorably, with 38 percent viewing him unfavorably. In contrast, 49 percent of voters view Romney unfavorably and 42 percent view him favorably.

In the U.S. Senate race, Sen. Dianne Feinstein leads Republican Elizabeth Emken 60 percent to 34 percent.

This is the latest in a series of Reason-Rupe public opinion surveys dedicated to exploring what Americans really think about government and major issues.  This Reason Foundation project is made possible thanks to the generous support of the Arthur N. Rupe Foundation.

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